Monsterology 501: The Yattering and Jack

Another familiar face with us in the monster trenches today. Clive Barker won me over with Rawhead Rex, and now he tempts us with another oddly named villain, a demon named the Yattering. A fury whose responsibility is to drive people mad, but has the Yattering met his match in seemingly boring Jack Polo? Let’s find out, in The Yattering and Jack. But oh wait, this is another story by Clive Barker, so shouldn’t this technically be Monsterology 302? You want semantics or you want a review?

            That’s what I thought.

            Once again Barker shows us the strength of a clear narrative. The novel opens through the viewpoint of the Yattering and then subtly shifts about halfway through to Jack Polo. After that they share screen time with each other and transition back and forth. It’s not as jawing as the transition between Rawhead Rex and his victims, although I did love that approach. Barker does the same thing here, although the hectic hopping isn’t done until the story’s climax. It was well done, but I felt like I would have been just as happy if the story had been told entirely through the Yattering’s POV. Maybe more as it would be a bit of a twist that Jack has been fooling him the whole time. But that desire probably just stems from watching lots of Tales from the Crypt as a kid.

            The setting stays entirely in the home of Jack Polo, and never ventures further than his backyard. While Barker never goes out of his way to describe the home in excruciating detail, the boring Jack makes you picture a boring home. The scenes come to life though is when the Yattering strikes over Christmas break. A turkey breaks out of the oven and dances, and the Christmas tree spins like a whirling top, snapping the lights and filling the air with the smell of burnt fuses as more inanimate objects enter the fray. Rawhead Rex was confined to a small town, but the Yattering strikes in an even smaller and intimate setting.

            I loved both of the characters in the book. There were times when I found myself rooting for the Yattering, even when he was drowning or blowing up cats. He kind of reminded me of the mortal equivalent of a disgruntled office worker; he’s assigned something that should be an easy sale, but for some reason he just can’t close the account. Likewise, Jack was entertaining in his ho-hum reactions to the chaos in his life. It was refreshing to learn that he does care about his family, and his façade almost breaks when the Yattering starts messing with his daughters. Yet Jack presses on, recounting the lessons that you can learn from watching Spock and McCoy on Star Trek. If you really want to piss someone off, remain calm while they’re mad.

            Which brings me to the theme of the novel, and I do believe there is one, and it’s Jack’s repeating phrase and the one that closes the story. Que sera sera. What will be will be, so there’s no point in sweating the small stuff. Granted, a demon invading your home is not what most would consider small, but then Jack doesn’t consider him a small threat either. If he did he wouldn’t have gone so deep undercover for so long. When events are beyond your control though, such as the final destination of your soul after taming a demon, well, no point in worrying about them. In a way I suppose this could also be interpreted as you have to live your life the way you think is right, and don’t dwell on the consequences. And if nothing else, this story is a pretty good manual on how to handle internet trolls.

            So once again Clive Barker has impressed me with his writing, and once again, I feel the need to give him 5 Stars. I’ve also added several of his works to my Want to Read list. Coming into this class I was looking for research into my thesis, and I think I got that. Now it looks like it also gave me a new favorite horror writer.

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Monsterology 401: Cycle of the Werewolf

            Some familiar tracks decorating the trenches this week. Wolf tracks. But wait! Are these human tracks mingled with them? That’s right, this week we will be dealing with werewolves, more specifically Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King. This book reads like a collection of short stories that follow a small town for a year as its ravaged by a werewolf every full moon. I love werewolves, going back to catching The Wolf Man with Lon Channey Jr on the tube as a kid. It ignited a love for Universal monster movies that persists to this day. And I love Stephen King, a writer I discovered in my teenage years. So werewolves and King, a match made in heaven for me, right? …right?

            What I’m most torn on is the approach to the narrative. On one hand I enjoyed the approach. It’s almost like William Goldman’s approach to The Princess Bride. By presenting the book as an abridgement of a longer work, Goldman is able to jump from action scene to action scene without any filler. Cycle of the Werewolf takes a similar approach where it goes from month to month, each chapter being a different werewolf attack. As I said above, this makes the book read more like a collection connected of short stories rather than a linear narrative, similar to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

            Unfortunately, this approach fights against the narrative rather than supports it. While there’s some beautifully bloody scenes here, some of the months were just a generic werewolf attack. A couple of times the werewolf attack wasn’t even shown, just the after effects revealed at the end. The month of July is so much longer compared to the other entries too, almost three times as long, which makes it seems like the other months are more of a bridge to this month and December rather than building towards them.

King makes the mistake of having two of the characters being aware of the werewolf’s identity, but they refer to him as “someone they’ve seen everyday” or “it couldn’t be him.” There wasn’t a need to try and add an air of mystique in this approach, especially since a pretty big hint to the werewolf’s identity given very early on in the book. It also seemed odd that there seems to be no urgency to this small town, even though they suddenly have someone getting murdered every month. They don’t actively try and do anything about it until July, and I don’t get much of a sense of building dread in the characters.

            This is however King, so the setting is fairly immersive. Due to the set up of the book, you’re not given a clear view of Tarker Mills in the beginning. However, while looking back now, I realize that I can piece together the different scenes of each month and get a pretty clear picture of it. The scenes immerse you with the danger of the werewolf, and King uses cornerstones of each months such as fireworks in July and the longing for romance in February, which gives most of the scenes a distinct feel from the others.

            The characters also felt real. Again, due to the style of the narrative, you don’t get to know the protagonist as well as you would in a traditional work. However, the character of Marty Coslaw is definitely a unique child. He’s wise beyond his years, unhampered by disability, and after facing terror comes through it stronger. What’s more impressive though is the victims in the novel. While they do not have as many pages to shine, King is able to define distinct speaking styles, motivations, and wardrobes for each of them. In this regard, each of the characters read as unique as the months they’re set in.

            The book also deserves some points for originality. Werewolves aren’t anything new, and the opening month of the book certainly doesn’t foreshadow any new approach to the trope. The story itself doesn’t tread any new ground in the mythos; from the lunar cycle, to the werewolf’s description of part man and part beast, and its weaknesses, this is definitely your grandparents’ werewolf. However, following its attack each month as a series of connected short stories is new, and I haven’t seen the approach before or since in this genre. The gruesome images accompany it gives it an almost storybook feel, and Berni Wrightson deserves as much credit as King in regards to immersion, as they really help set the scene.

            In conclusion, I would give Cycle of the Werewolf 3 stars. It’s a good read, not great, and has some decent tricks to make it an interesting study. It was a great idea, but sadly, it was executed in a way that doesn’t separate it from other works in the genre.

Monsterology 301: Rawhead Rex

  A fresh step into some new monster trenches as we continue our pursuit of knowledge on these lovable blood-covered foes. So far, we’ve seen vampires and monster spiders, and they have both overtaken humanity as the dominant force of the planet. How though will humanity fair against a forgotten pagan god, buried beneath a tranquil town? Let’s find out in Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex.

            As far as works of horror goes, this has been my favorite story so far. This terrified me, I’ve only just finished the story, and my hands are still trembling as I type. Barker’s writes this with an impressive style and employs head hopping within the narrative, often within the same chapters. This is generally considered a “no-no”, but the only real rule in popular fiction is if it works, it works. And Barker makes it work. Jumping from the hunger obsessed mad god to the victims wasn’t jarring, but pushed the narrative forward. It almost felt like watching Jaws, where the alternating point of view between monster and victim could either feed you with a false sense of dread or relief. Barker did both.

            The story was also very immersive. While I may not have pictured the remote British village as well as I could have, as a perpetual resident of small towns it did feel authentic to me. So much so that sometimes the dialogue of characters would take on a familiar rural Kentucky drawl, until I reminded myself the action was taking place across the pond. When Rawhead Rex comes to town Barker focuses on the details of the destruction, making the small-town horror come to life. I can still feel the heat as Rawhead sets the town ablaze.

            Some of the characters do sometimes come off as stock ones occasionally, especially in the beginning. They’re there to be rural rubes destined to be Rawhead’s dinner and little else, however Barker still focuses on their voice with as much detail as he does his more complex characters. I rooted for these minor characters and felt sympathetic during their demise. The characters of Coots and Ron also provided a degree of depth not seen in the others; a man trying to hold onto his faith in the face of a prehistoric terror, and a man suddenly spurned into action at the loss of his son. To me they came across as the protagonists of the story, and of all the characters, they have the most screen time.

            This also read as very original to me. At first, I had thought of Rawhead as something more akin of a giant than an actual god. He does tower over humanity and have a taste for Englishmen, especially their children. Barker went back further though and chose a forgotten pagan god as the nemesis to this small town. It reminded me of just how ancient our world really is, and how much history we have buried as we’ve progressed as a species. Some of this history, perhaps, best left forgotten as in the case of Rawhead.

            Thematically some things stood out to me as well. At times this story almost seemed like an exploration of faith. Declan’s mad faith was born out of amazement and perhaps terror and devotes himself completely to Rawhead. Coots manages to hold on to his faith despite being terrified and having his beliefs challenged. Ron meanwhile never had much faith, but is immediately spurned to it by rage. There is power in faith, as evident in Rawhead’s reaction to a power that predates himself. It was interesting to see how faith moved these characters in different directions and conclusions.

            This story satisfied me on every level possible. As a work of horror, it terrified me, and it contained elements of everything I look for when reading and examining popular fiction. My hands have finally stopped shaking, and so I’ll take this opportunity to award it 5 stars.  

Monsterology 201: Breeding Ground

          This week’s dose of monster learning takes us to new grounds than the previous two; breeding grounds to be precise. For most couples the prospect of a child coming into their lives is a happy one, such is the case with Matthew Edge and his girlfriend Chloe. However, it soon becomes apparently that something is not right about this pregnancy, and Chloe’s condition is hardly contained to her. With the outbreak of a new predatory species can Matt and a handful of survivors struggle to outlast their foes, but how can they when earth has become the breeding ground of a new species? Let’s find out, in Sarah Pinborough’s Breeding Ground.

            I’ve never had so many issues with a book that I liked so much. For the most part I think Pinborough’s pacing is spot on, and scenes flow and transition from one to the next, especially in the beginning. Matt’s scenic home life is soon interrupted with building scenes of uncanny and horror and this pace largely continues to build throughout the whole narrative. I wasn’t crazy about the scene in the mall, in which Pinborough had a limited habit of describing the sound effects of shoes and seat belts by describing the sounds themselves, and Matt also compared himself to being stuck in a horror movie. These issues were small though and didn’t really repeat themselves, which was why the mall scene in particular stands out so much after reading it.

            I didn’t mind Pinborough’s style, but her narrative left me with a lot of questions by the end of the novel. How long had Katie been infected, how was she able to hold off the widows, and if that was because of her infection how was she able to hold on so long when so many other women rapidly transformed? How was she able to hide it from everyone but her sister, how come no one else but her little sister and the dog noticed the smell? Why were the widows effected by the blood of deaf animals? If the widows were going to breed why do their mates come from human males, because it seems like they’re trying to scarf down their only chance to survive. Are they sentient? They can read minds and manipulate people, or at least Matt, and what happened to that cool telepathy while they were in their hosts? Maybe some of these questions were answered in the narrative and I missed them, but it seemed like I had a lot of questions when all was said and done. In horror I think you can get away with leaving some items unexplained, but less so when its tied so closely into the science fiction genre like this one was.

            Overall, I liked the characters. Besides Matt most of them are stock characters from horror movies, but you get to know them on a more intimate level and each has their own strengths, flaws, and motivations. Matt came off as very likable in the beginning, an everyday man suddenly thrust in over his head. However, later on Matt began to do some stuff that alienated him to me.

I didn’t much like him turning around and lusting after Katie almost immediately after Chloe died; practically the same day. And maybe it’s because I didn’t pick up on some of the more chauvinistic elements of Robert Neville from I Am Legend that others noticed, but some parts of his demeanor stood out to me. His domineering sex scene with Katie for example (which is what, a week after Chloe dies?), and the fact that it was her biting her lip to showcase how young she was that made him succumb to her advances.

It also seemed strange that for a recount of his events for prosperity sake that he would include all the details of a sex scene. Likewise, I didn’t like him creeping on Hannah while she slept and him mentioning how attractive she looked while vulnerable. This was also the only sign of attraction he shows for Hannah until they magically hookup after Nigel’s failed coup. Why did they hook up, because he was the protagonist and she was the only woman left? At that point I cringed because I just wanted Matt to stop having sex, nothing good ever seems to come from it. I think I would have liked Breeding Ground a lot better had Pinborough avoided any romantic angles, because with the exception of Matt and Chloe in the beginning, they are not done well.

The book does shine with its immersion though. I thought Pinborough did an excellent job of conveying the sense of loneliness and isolation in her setting. The added details of the widows and their webs covering the locations helped sell the mood to me. It highlighted that humanity’s time was over, and a new species was laying claim to it.

I also liked the originality of the story. True, the widows were probably in part inspired by classic sci-fi monsters like the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise. What I found original though was using pregnancy as a metaphor for horror. The body goes through transformations, there are mood swings, and there are carvings for weird foods. Pinborough took these to violent extremes in her portrayal of women as they carry the widows. This is a happy time for couples, but also a terrifying one, and Pinborough capsizes the terror and swallows the joy whole.

I said earlier that I was conflicted by this book. I actually really enjoyed reading it, it was a nice and chilling read. However, there are a lot of items in both the narrative and the protagonist that held it back for me. Based on my own enjoyment I would give it 4 Stars, but when taking in its glaring flaws, I’m afraid that like a widow with its suckers in you, its holding it back to 3.  

Monsterology 102: The Funeral

            Once more into the vampiric trenches my friend! This week’s second dose of monsterology covers once again vampires, and once again by previous writer Richard Matheson. In his short story, “The Funeral”, Matheson takes a much lighter approach at the theme of mortality. Our vampires aren’t quite so scary, they’re much more lighthearted, and joined by a cast of other supernatural friends and well-wishers. Because if you have immortality, what’s to stop you from throwing you that final send off you so richly deserve?

            The story is of the short variety, clocking in at around five pages. It flows well enough, Matheson doesn’t draw the scenes out and transitions when he needs to and keeps the plot moving along steadily. He still has the habit of referring to his character by the first and last name, which makes me think that there might not have been a higher meaning to the constant mentions of “Robert Neville” in I Am Legend. Luckily Matheson mixes it up more with protagonist Morton Silkline (thank goodness, cause that name) and the story is brief enough where it didn’t grate against my nerves like before.

            Moving onto the characters, well…they’re fairly shallow especially when compared to the last book. You have the greedy mortician trope Morton along with a host of cutout characters you could find in any generic monster film. There’s a bit of a twist in the character Ludwig Asper, the vampire who longs for a funeral, but even he could easily be a Dracula stand-in. So, the characters don’t have much depth. So what? Sometimes a story is just a story, and the characters are meant to entertain. And they serve that purpose well.

            Matheson managed to immerse you in the setting again, although not to the same degree as in I Am Legend, but that’s the difference 150 pages will make. Since the story takes place in a funeral home, a setting where most people are familiar with, he did not have to strive so hard to describe it in excruciating detail. Rather than that, he includes nice touches of detail like “I Am Crossing o’er the Bar to Join the Choir Invisible” playing when the door opens or Silkline’s golden pen in a black box to highlight the area. Where the scenery comes alive is in his description of the visitors (as I said the characters aren’t deep, but they make excellent scenery) and the chaos of the fight between Jenny of Boston and the Count. Rugs catch on fire, flowers explode like popcorn; it’s a beautiful madness intermingled with the penny pinching Silkline’s groans.

            Once again Matheson manages to impress me with his originality. This is a fun, light-hearted, monster mash romp. I had a hard time placing it in the horror category though, and even the humor was a bit subdued for my liking. Still, I smiled throughout my reading of this, especially at the end, but I don’t recall laughing much on my first reading. Then again, I did read it at the local library, so some restraint may have been measured in my part without realizing. I never read about a funeral for a vampire before, so maybe the originality is limited to my experience, but hey, one man’s originality is another’s familiarity.

            The story doesn’t have much of a thematic message, not like the ones I picked up on in I Am Legend, anyways. But theme is subjective, and maybe others picked up on something I didn’t. I don’t think that was Matheson’s intention though, he just had a funny idea for a story and sat down and wrote it. Even so, I think Matheson was trying to poke fun at funerals and in doing so death, in an attempt to make it seem more humorous and less frightening. Then again that could be my own perceptions again. Two blog entries so far and I’ve brought up death both times, sensing a pattern? Matheson also could have been poking fun at humanity’s willingness to accept strange phenomenon if they happen often enough; especially if there’s a bag of gold to be had.

            Overall, I would give the story 3/5 stars. It’s not a very deep read, but a quick light one. There may not be a deeper meaning or characters in the narrative, but as Stephen King says, sometimes a story is just a story, and this one’s not bad at all. It may fall short in both humor and horror, but I challenge you not to smile while reading it.

Monsterology 101: I Am Legend

    This week in monsterology we’ll be covering everybody’s favorite blood suckers, vampires. Leave your hashtags at home though because there’s no duo of lover boy supernatural teams to root for. The classic I Am Legend by Richard Matheson covers up the sparkles and glimmer of recent vampires with a classic layer of post-apocalyptic grime more at home in a Mad Max movie than a high school locker. Matheson’s vampires have fangs, and they’re not afraid to use them.  

I opened with a ringing endorsement, but at first something felt a bit off about I Am Legend. Looking back, I think it was the style that Matheson chose to write it in. He had a methodical approach of detailing the protagonist’s coming and goings, and detailed in step by step detail the course of Robert Neville’s day. Factor that in with an annoying habit of always referring to the main character by his first and last name, and the book began to leave a taste in my mouth as sour as the garlic that permeates every breath of Neville’s vampire infested world.

Quickly though you come to realize that this is done by design rather than any shortcoming of the writer. Neville as a protagonist is a lonely man who is merely going through the motions of life with no real zeal; such is the fate of the last human in a world ruled by vampires. Being constantly referred to as Robert Neville also showcases the familiarity when he’s rarely referred to by another character as “Bob” or “Robert”. Despite this interesting take, I felt like this decision hampered the readability of the novel, and what should have been a one day read took twice as long.

Even though the book and I got off to a rocky start Matheson does manage to create an immersive world. Most of the time Neville is confined within his own home; his sanctuary away from the vampires that threaten and hunger for him every night. At one moment a fortress and the next a prison you begin to feel a rea l sense of isolation along with Neville. The journeys he takes outside the walls of his home are marked with foreboding landmarks that standout in my mind, like the constantly burning pit where bodies are disposed of.

At times it also felt like Robert Neville ran the risk of really being named Gary Stu. Here is a man that on a whim can empty pistols and slug it out with a mob of vampires before making it back to his home relatively unscathed, while also dabbles in science at his leisure to discover the scientific explanations for creatures of superstition. While these moments do seem a bit over the top, at the core of Neville’s experience is his learning to cope with the isolation that’s been forced upon him. You watch his desires to hold onto humanity and sanity in a world that has lost both. It’s in these struggles that Neville becomes the most relatable, and is the focal point of the novel. In many ways the novel is almost like Castaway meets Dracula.

Perhaps what is most fascinating about the novel is how original it is despite being first published in 1954. While borrowing heavily from the mythos set forth by Bram Stoker, Matheson seeks out a way to make his vampires unique. There is no supernatural explanation for the vampires, all of it can be explained either by science of psychology, and it’s this quest for knowledge in the face of the unknown that saves Neville from the depths of insanity. Tackle that in with the isolated tone, a common theme in classic Twilight Zone episodes, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Matheson eventually began writing for this show as well.

Thematically the novel keeps you twisting and guessing. At times it seems like it’s dealing with the issue of morality and humanity as defined by self, and other times as the conquest of science over superstition and ignorance. At the heart of the theme though the story is about death and the acceptance of it. Neville is a man on borrowed time, the last survivor of a dead civilization on the cusp of a new world order. It’s terrifying and Neville initially struggles with it before finally accepting the death of everything that once was, including himself. For someone whose greatest fear is the Big D itself I had a great admiration for the fight that Neville put up against it, and an even greater respect when he decided to lay down his arms.

In conclusion this was a really great read. I enjoyed the original take on vampires, one that stills feels original sixty years later, but to me isolation was the greatest monster that plagued Neville. The style can be a bit off putting to a modern audience, but it was done by design, and the initial readability problems are whipped away in a whirlwind read. A quick, and very satisfying, read.

The Journey Begins

Alright, generic title in place…might as well leave it. Now let’s get rid of this garbage generic welcome message complete with generic quotes and write something original or….am I doing that thing where I write what I’m thinking?

….need to fix the backspace key on my keyboard.

Hi!

Welcome to Chasing the Griffin, a blog that exists to chase that high I’m missing after a week long residency at grad school, and…well…because a professor is making me keep one for class. And when you’re in grad school and a professor tells you to make a blog, you don’t ask what the heck’s a blog, you fiddle around WordPress like an idiot until something faintly resembling one pops up on the internet.

And here we are.

Seriously though, stick around for some reviews (AKA homework) and more in the works.

–Lucas